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International Socialism, Winter 1965/66


John Strauther

The Knock


From International Socialism, No.23, Winter 1965/66, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Politics of Population
William Petersen
Gollancz, 25s.

This collection of essays from general and specialist publications is divided into two parts, the first on population growth and family planning, the second on migration and integration.

The population theories of Malthus, Marx and Keynes are compared, to the distinct disadvantage of Marx. Petersen attempts to rehabilitate Malthus as a forerunner of Keynes, and to show that Marx developed no distinctive theory of population, but shared basic assumptions with Malthus. Malthus, it is pointed out, opposed contraception as a method of birth control, advocating only ‘moral,’ economic and social controls. Petersen’s proposed solutions to the problem of ‘population explosion,’ here related chiefly to the United States where he admits that the postwar expansion of the birth-rate (‘59 million babies’) does not exert a serious Malthusian pressure on resources, are somewhat in the same tradition. Though favouring unrestricted birth control, legal abortion and sterilisation, his emphasis is on reducing the desired family size through sanctions against early marriage and ‘reckless procreation,’ and the provision of ‘alternative satisfactions.’

If art essay’ on traditional socialist attitudes to birth control is damaging – most, like Bebel, were opposed on ideological grounds, though Engels admitted it as a theoretical possibility in a socialist society – that on official Soviet policy is damning. Under Stalin, Petersen shows, Russia necessarily adopted an authoritarian, large-family policy, harshly discouraging birth control and abortion, as a result of the huge deficit in male population (he puts it at 20 million) caused by terror and war.

But perhaps the most useful part of the book is that dealing with migration, particularly the essay relating how racialism became the official basis of US immigration policy, only recently scrapped. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Petersen, who might be described as a ‘hard liberal,’ uncovers a great deal of academic and political nonsense, though his attempt to generalise a non-economic theory of migration is not very convincing.

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